I’ve had several conversations lately with folks about anger. All of our emotions, including anger, are part of being human. Despite the fact that anger can be a very understandable response in a given situation, we all know it can also be destructive. It’s important to know how we can deal with our own anger in healthy ways.
It’s not uncommon for people to ask, “How do I keep my anger from flaring into rage?” When we lose control and anger turns to rage, we are likely to do and say things we later regret. We may damage an important relationship to the extent that becomes hard, if not impossible, to mend. What I would like us to consider is how we can constructively process anger in ways that serve both our personal mental health and our relationships with others.
Anger is a natural human emotion. In and of itself, it can be a valuable signal. For our personal mental health, it is wise to consider why a particular person or event makes us feel angry. If our anger is out of proportion to the actual event, it’s important to explore what has triggered it. As one wise counselor expressed it, “if it’s hysterical, it’s historical.” For our own mental health and the health of our relationships, it is important to understand the underlying pain and fear within ourselves that fuels anger and rage.
To clarify the underlying dynamic of our anger, it can be helpful to talk with a trusted friend or a therapist. It may also be revealing to explore our thoughts, feelings, and the memories they evoke through writing. The insights that arise can help us understand what it is about a certain situation or person that easily triggers us. It can also provide us with the clarity and strength we need to engage strategies for keeping our anger under control.
The first essential step in summoning self-control in the heat of the moment is to recognize quickly when anger begins to rise in us. Our hearts beat faster, we are likely to hold our breath and clench our jaws. Inside our blood pressure rises and the stress hormone cortisol begins coursing through our body. These signals alert us to the anger train that is ready to pull out of the station.
At the first sign of anger, we have a chance to catch ourselves and make choices about how we will respond. We can intentionally breathe, release our tense jaws, and relax our hands. These responses to the initial spark of anger can create a space in which we have the option of choosing our words and actions carefully. Why? Because we are able to be mindful and thoughtful at a pivotal time.
This first step is crucial. Once the anger train leaves the station and picks up speed, it is almost impossible to stop it. Old habits kick in and harsh, hurtful words and actions may erupt and do their damage.
Some people hang on to anger and even rage as if they were essential to their identity claiming, “That’s just who I am,” or “I have a right to my feelings.” They may blame others for their behavior. It’s always someone else’s fault. This is not healthy for the person with a habit of rage, and it is certainly not healthy for their relationships.
Research has long shown that habitual anger damages our physical health. For starters, it raises blood pressure, releases damaging levels of the stress hormone cortisol into the body and contributes to gastrointestinal distress. In the face of repeated outbursts of anger and rage, people become wary. Trust erodes. They do what they can to protect themselves against future outbursts.
If we believe our angry outbursts are justified and others are always to blame, we create obstacles to our own growth. We may feel stuck, believing we are always going to feel and react the same way each time an event triggers us. The truth is that we can change how we think about our feelings. By examining them from a place of non-judgement and self-compassion, we make it possible to change how we respond when those uncomfortable feelings emerge.
If we understand more about our thoughts and emotions, we can respond to the external world in new ways. Thinking deeply about who we want to be as we engage the world can be a strong catalyst for change. If we begin the day focusing on our intention to express patience and peace, we may find that when a person cuts us off in traffic, a colleague ignores our input in a meeting, or our partner or child fail to honor an agreement we had made, we are able to take a few deep breaths, calm ourselves and respond in a constructive way. If we need to have a difficult conversation with the colleague or our partner, a positive outcome is more likely if we don’t engage the person with an angry face and harsh words. One can be firm and clear without expressing hostility.
Each of us can learn to train our mind to notice our patterns and habits. When we notice them, we can assess whether they serve us in a way that reflects who we want to be and how we want to live our life. We don’t have to be held hostage to a particular behavioral response when we feel “triggered.” Many of these responses are learned from childhood. Research shows us that the brain is supple and that we can learn different ways of responding when we put our mind to it. With intention and practice, we can create new patterns which can replace our old habits.
It is important to note that while it is valuable to learn to control how we express anger, it important not to push down angry feelings and pretend they aren’t there. Over time repressed anger contributes to depression and physical health problems. Talking about the anger we feel with an appropriate person or writing out our feelings, expressed through art or exercising, can release it. At the same time telling every person we know how angry we are and how someone has treated us badly can keep the anger roiling inside us which is far from healthy.
Sometimes after we have experienced an angry outburst (ourselves or have been the recipient of someone else’s) we feel exhausted, stressed out, and generally out of sorts. Our mind may be fuzzy and we have difficulty concentrating. Some of us “need” to hang onto our anger for a long time and that can be debilitating.
A way to recover is to focus on our breath. When we do that, we can notice what happens in our body as we attempt to calm ourselves. This is a step toward self-awareness.
1. One way to do this is to engage in a progressive relaxation of our body.
We relax ourselves by noticing our breath and we notice the different reactions as we relax one part of our body at a time. To try it, we can lie down, sit, or stand. We begin by focusing our attention on our toes. Then we move to our feet, followed by our legs, torso, arms, hands, fingers, neck, head (you get the picture). We can be as detailed as we like (focus on each finger or just the hand). Over time we calm our body and our nervous system. We focus on just one body part at a time and feel the sensation as we breathe into that spot.
2. Another way to calm ourselves is to slowly inhale soothing scents.
We can investigate aromatherapy, put a mild and calming scent such as lavender in a pillowcase, or put a few drops of a soothing scent onto a handkerchief. We can pay close attention as we inhale the fragrance of an aromatic tea before we take our first sip. We can soak in a tub or take a warm shower. As we take a shower, we can feel the sensation of the water on our body. We can collect some gentle or inspirational prayers or poems to read aloud, paying close attention to their rhythm. We can look carefully at a flower and notice its detail. When we eat something, we can experience its texture, shape, taste and pay close attention as it stays in our mouth.
The point of this is to attempt to put our focus on something that is neutral and hopefully, not trigger a negative thought or feeling. If it does, however, we notice what is happening in our body and return to our breath. We can place one hand on our heart and the other on our belly as we sense the movement of our belly as it rises and falls. We can pay attention to our heartbeat and to how the air feels on our skin. We can say phrases such as: “It’s time to rest;” ”I’ll get through this; ” “At this moment, I am alright. ” We can think of our own words of guidance or encouragement to help us with self-care. If this triggers rage, then we can use a pen or colored pencils or crayons to put onto paper what is in our mind. It does not have to “make sense, ” as it is just another way to express what is inside. And then, we return to our breath.
Many of us are going at a pace that is neither sustainable nor healthy for us without caffeine (!) or enough sleep. There is a strong connection between sleep and how we function and particularly, in relation to the way we interact with others. Our patience, ability to pay attention, and to be present, are all affected by whether we have had enough “good” sleep. Research conducted in 2021 at Cambridge University points to the connection between both too little and too much sleep to visual attention, memory, problem-solving and processing speed, depression and anxiety and our overall wellbeing.
Our physical and mental wellbeing is affected by whether we get a good night’s sleep. As we examine the multiple areas of our lives and whether we feel we are operating at an optimal or near optimal level, we may wish to commit to making the changes necessary to sleep the correct amount of hours in addition to the quality of our sleep. As we do this we may need to “get real” about not only how we sleep and whether we get enough sleep but what our sleep rituals are and how we can enrich and optimize our sleep. It is a major factor in maintaining our health.